A hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday produced more questions than answers around why the Trump administration moved to quietly end a humanitarian immigration policy known as "medical deferred action."
Though little clarity was provided by federal immigration officials, the distinct partisan divide on immigration policy was laid bare, with Republican lawmakers suggesting the hearing itself was a scare tactic and the Democrats calling this an inhumane move by the Trump administration.
WBUR first reported the end of the process that allows seriously ill immigrants to apply to remain in the U.S. for medical treatment. Last month, Boston-area immigrants began receiving denial letters from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that has historically processed medical deferred action applications. The letters told applicants their requests were no longer being processed, and that patients — many in the middle of medical treatments — and their families needed to leave the U.S. within 33 days.
During questioning by members of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Daniel Renaud, an official with USCIS, declined to comment on why the policy was changed and at whose request. Renaud repeatedly cited pending litigation in Boston federal court as a reason for not responding to questions related to those facts.
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the only member of the Massachusetts delegation on the committee, addressed Renaud saying, "This is not about your answering just to this committee, you're answering to the American people," she said, "and this emergency hearing was called because of a rallying cry, a public outcry, an outrage."
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) pressed Renaud with the same line of questioning, asking who handed down the decision to end medical deferred action and why it was done with no public announcement. Finally, turning to subcommittee Chairman Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Ocasio-Cortez suggested further action.
"Mr. Chairman, if I may, I think that we should consider, and I believe that after this hearing we have no recourse but to consider, discussing a subpoena."
Renaud did state on the record that as of Aug. 7, the date that USCIS says it ended processing medical deferred action requests — though it did so with no public announcements — there were approximately 791 pending requests.
On Sept. 2, USCIS issued a press release stating it would reopen all medical deferred action requests that were pending as of Aug. 7.
Renaud also confirmed 424 cases that were previously denied have been reopened. The remaining 367 have had no action taken. Renaud was unable to say what the changes in policy mean for those pending cases.
Thomas Homan, former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was asked repeatedly by Republican subcommittee members to speak about the conditions on the U.S. southern border.
"There is a crisis on the border, and it's not going to go away if we want to abolish ICE, we want to give away college education and drivers licenses and free medical care, you're never going to solve the immigration crisis on the border," Homan said. "It's not going to happen."
U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) questioned whether Democrats were trying to score political points by calling the emergency hearing. Addressing Homan, Grothman asked: "Do you believe these folks are here to create an unnecessary fear that's never going to happen anyway? In other words, they are scaring people who shouldn't be scared."
Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Sanchez, a constituent of Pressley's, was one of several individuals impacted by the government's decision who testified before the subcommittee. He and his family are from Honduras and entered the U.S. on tourist visas in 2016. He receives treatment for cystic fibrosis at Boston Children's Hospital and says having to return to Honduras, where doctors know little about his condition, would amount to a death sentence.
Sanchez received a denial letter from USCIS last month but has since been told his case will be reopened.
There was some debate during the hearing as to whether or not those people previously eligible for medical deferred action through USCIS could now apply for a similar option through ICE, which is what USCIS had previously told WBUR. However, last month ICE officials said it is "not going to implement any sort of a program or procedure or policy to take over that function."
ICE does consider administrative stay requests, a different process that allows the government to postpone deportation for a variety of reasons. People subject to removal from the U.S. can apply for a stay of up to one year, and there is an option to submit medical evidence as a reason for the request.
According to legal experts, unlike medical deferred action, which allowed immigrants to proactively request to stay in the U.S., an administrative stay of deportation through ICE requires that people already be in deportation proceedings.
It's still unclear exactly how many people are affected by the end of medical deferred action. Not only does it remain unclear what will happen with the more than 300 cases that have not been reopened by USCIS, but also, there are an untold number of people for whom medical deferred action through USCIS no longer exists as an option.
A letter sent last month to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, USCIS and ICE was signed by nearly 130 members of Congress and gave the administration a deadline of Friday to provide further information on the end of medical deferred action.
This segment aired on September 12, 2019.